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A Pressplay Test Drive

by Steve McCannell
03/05/2002

Two years after Napster hit the streets and a year after the recording industry took the file-swapping giant to court, the major labels have finally rolled out their own subscription services, Pressplay and MusicNet.

The first hurdle they face is getting users to pay for the digital music they once considered free--thatís free as in free beer and free speech. But even if they do, customers will have to get used to a few more pitfalls of the services, including a limited catalog, limited downloads, and the lack of true ownership of downloaded tracks.

Will these pay-for-play services be able to offer enough value in terms of quality and legitimacy to bring people over from the free file-sharing networks like Morpheus-Kazaa-Grokster and Gnutella, or will they drive even more people over to the dark side?

I spent some time on Pressplay, kicking the tires to see how it runs. While the chassis is solid and there are some nice features, the vehicle that is Pressplay isn't built as well as I had hoped.

The breakdown

You download Pressplay, not from its own site, but from affiliates like MSN, Yahoo, and Roxio, and you can try it for free for 14 days. Hereís the breakdown on what you get at different subscription levels.

  Basic Plan Silver Plan Gold Plan Platinum Plan
Number of streams/month 300 500 750 1000
Downloads/month 30 50 75 100
CD burns allowed 0 10 15 20
Price per month $9.95 $14.95 $19.95 $24.95

Here are a few key observations:

  • Once you end your subscription, you lose access to all of the tracks that you have downloaded from Pressplay. If you decide to come back to Pressplay within six months, you can regain access to your download collection, but only if you use the same user name and password.

  • If you don't use up your downloads/streams/burns in one month, they do not carry over to the next month.

  • You have to be connected to the Internet to burn a CD.

  • Pressplay doesn't support Windows 95, Windows NT, or Macintosh.

  • The program itself is a 2MB download.

Download and installation

After going through the sign-up process (including giving a credit card number), I installed Pressplay on my computer. Apparently, Pressplay runs through Microsoftís Windows Media Player 7, as the installation aborted itself upon not finding WMP7 on my computer. I had uninstalled WMP7 six months ago, because I prefer using Winamp or QuickTime to play media files. So I had to download all 12MB of it again. Pressplay doesnít offer a very visible link to the Windows Media Player download, and it would have been nice if they had explained that WMP7 was needed before I began the sign-up. Once I had WMP7 installed, I wasnít sure if I needed to start all over again and give them my credit card information again. Luckily I didnít; upon going back to the sign-up screen, the download picked up where it had broken off for the media player.

Once I installed the Pressplay client, I was able to fire up the service, log on, and go.

Pressplay Home Page
Pressplay's home page allows easy access to the service's features.

The GUI is very clean and easy to navigate, with a featured-artist section and top downloads followed by a random list of the service's musical offerings. Tabbed choices align the top of the screen (Home, Find Music, My Music, Burn Tracks, Download Status, and Message Boards), search options are just underneath that, and playback controls line the bottom of the window.

In fact, it looks a lot like Napster and Morpheus, particularly the search results and transfer status. The transfer rates vary from 56 to 105Kbps, averaging about 80 or so (which I thought was a little slow, seeing as I'm on a T1 line).

Audio quality

The quality of songs I downloaded was wonderful. But listening to the streaming music could knock out my hearing above 2K, with the tinny sound you can only get when audio isn't encoded at a high bitrate. Pressplay says it streams at "20Kbps or 32Kbps depending on your modem speed" and that delivering higher quality streams is "under consideration." It recommends downloading tracks for better playback quality (128Kbps).

Problems finding music

Beyond the quality issues, I found a few other major problems with Pressplay.

First, itís difficult to find music by genre. I'm into swing music and always looking for new bands. To find them on Pressplay, I would need to know their names. But that exploration was part of the fun of Napster: If you found a song you liked, you could ask the system to see what else the person you got that song from had on their drive. It was a good way to handle recommendations.

Second, do you know whether an artist is with the Sony-Universal camp or the Warner-EMI-BMG camp? Neither do I, but you need to learn; since Pressplay and MusicNet split, each cover only half the pantheon of performers. I searched for Dave Matthews and Pressplay gave me Sheryl Crow tunes. Their system may recommend music in the same vein as the artist you searched for, if that artist isn't affiliated with a Pressplay label.

Even when I did find an artist, the whole catalog wasnít available. They had 78 songs by U2, but "Even Better Than the Real Thing" wasnít one of them. The more I used the service, the more I felt like I was 14 again and putting a penny onto a CD club sign-up form, with only a limited amount of CDs to choose from.

Odd results
Searching for Dave Matthews gave me some odd results.

Burning

The people at Sony and Universal probably spent many sleepless nights wondering whether to allow Pressplay subscribers to burn CDs from their service. I think it was a wise decision to allow it, and itís the best aspect of the service.

But you can't burn just any song. Pressplay lets you burn only certain tunes, and only two songs by any artist in one month. I'm sure they could draw many users to the service if they were a little more generous with burning.

And itís strange that they send a second CD-burner application (Roxio's) with the Pressplay software when Windows Media Player already burns CDs. Why do I need to use Roxio's software for that? Pressplay is already a bit of a resource hog, and it may be that firing up a CD burner outside of Windows Media Player contributes to the problems Iíve heard others are having burning CDs.

Is it soup yet?

After years of filling up hard drives with downloaded MP3s--both legitimate and illegitimate--I bring high expectations to Pressplay. If it and MusicNet represent a step forward morally, theyíre still a step back technologically. Online users have seen how easy and fun it is to download music; now services like Pressplay will have to make it less work to pay for music than it would be to act as a digital pirate.

But the debut of Pressplay suggests that's not happening anytime soon. There are too many stumbling blocks: not enough artists and songs to choose from, poor quality streaming, and too many restrictions on the music you've downloaded.

Beyond these problems, my biggest gripe with media companies today is that I don't feel like I own anything anymore. They have taken away that feeling of having a song that is "yours," which is part of the charm of owning a music collection. With Pressplay, you never actually own the music; it's like the service is subletting the music to you: As long as you keep paying the rent, you have access to the media that the service makes available. The warm, fuzzy feeling of owning a song or record seems to be on the way out, as these services only allow you to listen to whatever they deem acceptable, for as long as you keep paying the piper.

Until they fix up some of the warts with the service, I'd press pause on Pressplay.

Steve McCannell is a writer/producer for the O'Reilly Network and the founder of Lost Dog Found Music.


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